Helen O’Shea

textile artist
Cork, Ireland

CURIOSITY LIES AT the heart of what Irish textile artist Helen O'Shea creates. Applying her training in textiles, she experiments with washed up, inorganic plastic that she finds as she combs the beach near her home in Ireland. 
The result is both stunning and somewhat ingenious: she turns the plastic into intricate sculptures that resemble creatures and plant life deep in the sea. 

As Helen shows me around her studio space at Backwater Artists, it’s easy to sense her joy and enthusiasm for her work. It’s almost contagious. A glance around and I see books on the ocean, unused stamps featuring bioluminescent sea life, containers of colourful thread and lots of different types of worn plastic.  
On the one hand, the amount of plastic she has collected is a stark reminder of plastic pollution and its threat to the environment. Yet as she points to a strung up line of faded plastic bags and an assortment of discarded colourful bottle caps, it becomes easy to see how this is all material she can play with.

“The materials drive the work.
They dictate what I do.”

A critical turning point came in 2015, when Helen was in Iceland doing a residency. She discovered incredibly soft leather made from discarded fish skins. It prompted her to think differently about how materials can be utilised to the fullest. 

“After Iceland, I thought about how I can be using materials that others don’t want or will throw away. How can I turn “waste” material into something beautiful?”  

For Helen, experimentation and imagination is very much a part of her art process. She plays around with the reclaimed plastic and discovers how the material reacts to heat, glue or the sewing machine.
Her textile background is evident when you see her graceful sculptures: they are forms covered with miniature scales or sewn with threads inspired by microorganisms in the sea. She deftly manipulates her materials to dramatic effect.  

“To me, they’re not just waste plastic anymore. The time, skill and decisions I put into it helps them go beyond that.”

It has been a joy to encounter an artist that pays such close attention to her materials. And not only that, but her method of creating through experimenting also seeks to breathe new life into discarded plastic. All while addressing the pressing issue of how its durability is affecting the ocean. 

Helen O’Shea

Visited May 2022, published February 2023.